On June 25, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated a bridge over the Padma River. The longest bridge in Bangladesh, the 6.15-kilometre Padma Multipurpose Bridge, is an important milestone in the history of independent Bangladesh, as it is a symbol not only of Bangladesh’s design but also of its growing economic capacity and development.
Speaking at the opening of the Padma Bridge, Hasina said: “This bridge is not just brick, cement, iron and concrete. This bridge is our pride and a symbol of our ability, strength and dignity. This bridge belongs to the people of Bangladesh.”
The original plan of the Hasina government was to build the Padma Bridge with external funding from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). But the World Bank abruptly withdrew from financing the project in 2012, citing corruption by government officials. This results in other funders withdrawing from the project as well. It seriously affected the image of the country and the ruling party, the Awami League. It was a setback for the people of Bangladesh as well. This prompted Hasina to choose to self-finance the project despite warnings from economists and opposition politicians. So the completion of the Padma Bridge has become a symbol of national pride and dignity.
Built at an estimated cost of $3.87 billion, Padma Bridge is one of the largest projects ever undertaken by Bangladesh. It connects 21 districts in southwestern Bangladesh to the capital, Dhaka, by road and rail, greatly shortening travel time.
While the global economic situation is bleak and the countries of the region are experiencing negative growth, the economy of Bangladesh is growing. The World Economic Forum says that the per capita income in Bangladesh, which was $2,260 in 2020, will rise to $2,860 in 2025. Apart from this project, Bangladesh has also provided support to the Maldives and Sri Lanka by giving them loans of $400 million . Bangladesh’s funding of the massive Padma project will now add to its reputation as a rising economic power in South Asia.
Awami League leaders credit Hasina’s strong leadership over the past 13 years to Bangladesh’s emergence as a middle-income country and its other economic successes.
The Padma Bridge will be the biggest contribution to the economic growth of Bangladesh. Economists say it would provide a 1.3 to 2 percent annual increase to the country’s gross domestic product. When the rail component of the bridge is completed, the project will contribute another 1 percent to GDP. The bridge project’s contribution to Bangladesh’s GDP is expected to rise to 5 per cent by 2055.
According to Zahid Hussain, a senior economist at the World Bank, the Padma bridge will cut the travel distance by 100 km for about 27 percent of Bangladesh’s population to boost business and agriculture, thus impacting the country’s GDP.
Other experts assert that the bridge will help alleviate poverty, boost trade, tourism and industry, and create jobs in the southwest of the country.
The Padma Bridge has regional implications as well.
It will improve communication. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal signed the Motor Vehicle Agreement to regulate passenger, personal vehicle and cargo traffic in 2015. The Padma Bridge will provide BBIN with the connectivity it needs.
For goods coming from the northeast bound for Kolkata, India has long been eyeing a shorter transit route through Bangladesh. During his visit to Bangladesh in April 2022, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar: “India is looking forward to stronger regional sub-regional cooperation in the field of communication.” In a statement issued regarding the opening of the Padma Bridge, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka said that the bridge “will not only help improve connectivity within Bangladesh, but will also provide much-needed impetus to the logistics and businesses linking India to our group. A common sub-region… the bridge will play an important role in strengthening bilateral and subregional communication.”
The Padma Bridge is expected to influence local politics as well. Given the mass abuses in conducting general elections in 2014 and 2018, the current Awami League government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many countries, including the United States. While the Hasina government is under tremendous pressure to ensure free and fair elections when they are held in 2023, a development project of the size and importance of the Padma project will give the government legitimacy from below.
With questions raised about the legitimacy of the elections and the quality of democracy in Bangladesh, Awami League leaders have been promoting the idea of ”less democracy, more development” in Parliament. They will be able to make the Padma project a shining example of this development.
Even when northeastern Bangladesh was experiencing the worst floods in decades, the Hasina government celebrated the opening of the Padma Bridge across the country and spent a huge amount of money on it. It is clear that the government wants to derive electoral benefit from completing the bridge. Only time will tell whether or not the Padma Bridge will serve the political and electoral agenda of the Awami League.